Nuclear energy: a new geopolitical battlefield

While the West has had considerable success imposing energy sanctions on Russia in response to the ongoing war in Ukraine, exports from Russia’s nuclear sector have proven more difficult to deal with. But now, as more Western countries get serious about cutting Russia off from their nuclear supply chains, they are pushing more and more economic and geopolitical power into China’s hands.

While it seemed impossible to wean Europe off Russian oil and natural gas without destroying the economy and dangerously compromising European energy security, the European Union has been remarkably successful in severing these ties thanks to an increase in renewable energy production and a very mild winter during the critical transition phase. However, the effectiveness of these efforts has been undermined by continued global dependence on Russian nuclear energy supply chains.

Russian state-owned nuclear energy company Rosatom has long been a major exporter of nuclear fuel and uranium enrichment services around the world. European countries including Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland and Bulgaria have increased their imports of Russian nuclear fuel to offset Russian fossil fuels, meaning they continue to provide the Kremlin with significant funds. Belladonna’s think tank estimates that nuclear fuel exports earned Moscow more than $739 million last year alone. Rostatom is also the main source of financing for the construction of new nuclear facilities at the global level. Currently, almost one in five nuclear power plants in the world is located in Russia or was built in Russia.

However, Russia’s influence in some nuclear markets appears to be waning as the ongoing war in Ukraine threatens its ability to implement its projects. Bulgaria has begged the United States to help escape Russia’s nuclear pressure, and Hungary appears to be trying to escape as well. Hungary’s Rosatom Paks II nuclear power plant has been behind schedule and over budget since its earliest planning stages in 2014, but setbacks have intensified in recent years as Europe’s stance toward the Kremlin and tighter security measures have complicated Russia’s ability to finalize the project.

While Russia continues to spin its wheels around Paks II, Hungary appears to be turning to China to continue developing nuclear energy. At the end of the week, Chinese President Xi Jinping will stop in Budapest, where he is to sign 16 agreements with the Hungarian government, including one regarding “cooperation covering the entire nuclear energy portfolio.” This appears to be the case with Paks II, which signals that Hungary intends to cut off Rosatom from its nuclear industry.

This is not the first time that nuclear energy has become a “geopolitical flashpoint” between Russia and China. Both economic giants are also struggling with each other for nuclear dominance in emerging economies, in particular in sub-Saharan Africa, where the growth potential of nuclear energy is enormous and urgently needs financial resources to begin the extremely expensive phase of nuclear energy development. planning and construction of nuclear power plants. But with Moscow’s attention and resources mired in war chaos, China has a clear advantage.

This potential shift of nuclear energy and profits to China is part of a much broader trend in the global energy landscape. Beijing has for years outperformed the rest of the world in renewable energy, green infrastructure and manufacturing. Beijing has positioned itself at the nexus of global clean energy supply chains, making itself indispensable to growing clean energy sectors in developed countries in Europe and the Americas, while also expanding its energy influence in emerging economies. Replacing Russia as the home of the world’s nuclear energy industry is just another step toward consolidating Beijing’s power over global energy markets.

Author: Haley Zaremba for

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